Mullin's Pre-Birkie 42k Skate Race Report


Pre-Race

After two weeks of half-marathon distance races it was time to return to marathon length and start the final prep for "The Big One" in just two short weeks.

The Pre-Birkie is about the best prep you can have for the Birkie.  It's obviously on the Birkie trail so even though you are going the opposite direction you are facing the same types of terrain and trail conditions.  Just like last year, I took this as an opportunity to practice as much of my race execution strategy as possible.

I prepped my Fischer Carbonlites with the Fast Wax recommendations of HSLF-10 x 2, HSF-10 x 2, but topped with Holmenkol Mid.  This was counter to what you might have done just by looking at the air temp warming to close to 30 by race time.  I'll touch on how my skis ran during the actual report.

With the start moved to Duffy's field from the lake we had to park at the fishing museum and bus over.  The parking situation was a cluster without people there to direct traffic.  Ultimately we ended up parking back in town and walking to the bus.  On a nice day it wasn't too bad, had the weather been colder though that would have been a major bummer.

We got to Duffy's field with plenty of time to hit the port-o-pots, change into ski boots, and ski a little bit before the classic race started.  Sadly I only got about 6 minutes of skiing before the classic race started and then people were throwing their skis down on the line for the skate race 30 minutes later.  Wanting a decent starting position I had to put my skis down too, third row, right behind Tommy.  So a much shorter warm-up and zero pick-ups before the race.

Thinking about that now it is probably going to be pretty similar at the Birkie so maybe that wasn't a terrible example.  In wave 1 I absolutely need to participate in the pre-race pen race to get a good start.  That means I'll be stripped down to the race suit and standing for probably close to 30 minutes before the start of the Birkie too.

Over the next 20 something minutes more and more people put their skis down in the first few rows.  By the time the race started we were very much shoulder to shoulder on the line.  I'm guessing it was easily 15 guys across each row.  Total carnage could have been in store.

Race

Despite the overly crowded start line, and the road crossing just 150m into the race there was no carnage.  Things were fairly hot off the line, but nothing scary.  It was a fairly big crowd headed up those first few climbs and there was some jockeying for position and moving around but nothing too scary.

Tommy was moving up and away from me pretty quickly.  I was slotted in very near Jay Wenner and Rod Raymond.  After hanging with Jay last weekend I figured that would be a reasonable place to be.  Pretty quickly though, despite not feeling like I was aerobically under stress, I felt like I was pushing to hold on.  My legs had a burning dead feeling to them.  It wasn't off balancing skiing like my Pre-Birkie last year where I was just all over the place and tense.  I felt relaxed and balanced, just lacking all pop in my legs.  At first I was very tempted to blame my skis again.  Unfortunately on those first few downhills I was hanging with the other skiers within reason.  I wasn't riding up on anyone, but they weren't blazing past me either.

Every time we hit a flat or uphill though I was struggling.  First Jay and Rod and company dropped me.  Then one person went past.  Then another.  Then a small pack.  Every time I tried to grab on, but just couldn't hold anyone's draft.  Somewhere in here Artie Huber from the Wednesday night race went by and I made another valiant effort to hang on, this time actually pushing the aerobic system a little higher, but again ultimately I was unable to hold on.

The Pre-Bikie is definitely net uphill.  Still not as much total ascent as the full Birkie, but a pretty good flavor.
As I skied down to Mosquito Brook and beyond it felt like the entire field was passing me by.  Shortly after the road crossing the packs were getting bigger.  Fellow CyclovaXC skier Dennis Kotcon went by leading a fairly sizeable pack including the lead woman in the 42k race.

Given how buried I was feeling I was starting to ponder pulling in at the 26k and calling it a day.  I certainly don't want to be a "quitter", but with how dead I felt I was worried I was digging myself a hole that was going to be hard to climb out of before the Birkie.

Thankfully somewhere before Gravel Pit, I finally found a group I could stick with.  It wasn't very big, but I finally managed to hang on.  After a little bit I started feeling a little bit better and actually moved up in the group.  My skis also started seeming to be a little better than those around me and I was riding up on people as we reached the base of the next hills.

By Gravel Pit I had actually ended up on the front of the little group.  On the way out of Gravel Pit I could see that there was a sizeable pack ahead with the back maybe only 150 or 200m up the trail.  Feeling a little better I wanted a good ride and made a push to join the pack.  Unfortunately the pack was moving decently and people were starting to come off the back.  I was picking them up one at a time which felt good to be passing instead of being passed, but I wanted the pack.

I could see that Dennis was still near the front of the pack and Artie was hanging near the back and then off the back.  I encouraged Artie to catch on as I continued to try and catch the pack.  In conversations with him after the race it sounds like his skis were not treating him well and he was skating to keep up with folks on the downhill.  Ugh, been there and that sucks.

Eventually I found a group of about three that had formed as the pack had slowly disintegrated as I was trying to catch it.  This group included the lead female and a couple of other 42k skaters.  I skied with them for a little while before the group ahead started to make some ground on us.  I was continuing to feel a little better and wanted to get that next pack so I made a move to go solo and bridge the gap.

Someone asked after the race if I went out too hard and if that was why I felt poor the first 15km.  This is a comparison of my HRs between the Pre-Birkie and SISU.  My conclusion is that it was definitely not about effort at the start of the race.  On average things were about the same there.  It is also worth noting that the dropping HR in the 34-38km section of the PB wasn't bonking for a change but instead an intentional attempt to recover to race the people I was with.  Usually when I see falling HRs like that at the end of a race it is bonk mode.
That solo effort lasted probably 5 or 6 minutes before we hit the bottom of Picnic Table hill.  I pushed hard at the base of the hill there to catch on.  Unfortunately part of that pack was 26k racers so as we crested the hill the pack was naturally split up.  Up the trail there was the lead pair of Dennis and another guy, and then about three guys strung out behind them.

On the way up to and across OO I was able to catch and then drop two of the guys.  The first punchy climb after OO I caught the last solo guy and set my sights on Dennis and his companion.  I was climbing well finally and was able to make up the remaining ground pretty readily on the second major climb north of OO.  Dennis looked like he was struggling and I went right around them and kept my sights up the now empty trail.

About a km or two later though I heard pole plants behind me.  A quick glance back showed them pulling me back in.  Not wanting to play rabbit I slowed up a bit and pulled over into the track as they caught me... and they pulled into the track behind me.  I relented and led for a while, but I made a concerted effort to ski relaxed and not push the pace.  Eventually I pulled over again and let someone else take over pace making.

This continued past Boedecker and to the turn around.  It is a little fuzzy if we picked someone up or if someone caught us because I think we were a group of four here.

The climb back to Boedecker, Boedecker Hill, or a few other less appropriate names depending on who you ask, was a beast as usual.  I ended up on the front and without specifically trying to I had a gap nearing the top where the real steep pitch smacks you in the face.  I figured I'd give it a little gas and see if I could break the group I was with.

After skiing through the aid station again though everyone was right back with me.  We had just under 6k to go at this point with just the one major climb to OO left.  I made the decision here to hold on and race these guys rather than trying push the pace.  I didn't specifically sit in, but I certainly didn't force my way to the front.  I was conserving some energy to wind it up at some point nearing the finish.

We were a group of 4 through this stretch having picked someone up along the way.  Of the four Dennis and I probably had the best skis, but not night and day different from one of the guys.  One poor soul was working the downhills to stay with us.  Overall I'd say my skis were slightly above average on the day.

At first I thought about going from the bottom of OO, but ultimately decided to try and give it a go near the top.  I ended up on the front at the bottom of OO, but kept things at a workman's effort until we reached the last little bump as you crest the main climb.  Here I put in a dozen hard V2 skates to accelerate away and hopefully break everyone's spirit and will.  I then settled in to a relaxed but hard skate down to the road crossing.

I was successful in breaking up the group, but Dennis was hanging tough and had gone with me.  I was feeling the efforts and needed a little recovery.  As you cross OO again there is about 1.5km to go with just a couple of little climbs.  The first is right up from the road, the second is the climb back onto the main skate trail and the last tiny little kicker before the finish.

I pulled over after the first little hill to let Dennis lead for a little bit.  I had wanted to go again right before hitting the main skate trail, but Dennis kept the foot on the gas the whole way and I was just hanging on.  As we hit the downhill headed for the last little kicker and the finish I made sure to get in his draft and then get myself ready for the final sprint.

As we hit the last little hill and the finishing straight we were running into some 26k and classic traffic.  I was able to give it enough gas and slide around the traffic to the right that I was able to get Dennis at the finish by about a ski length.  At least I'll tell myself that I took it and not that he let me have it!

In any case, it was definitely some fun racing those last 20km and I'm happy with my execution from about Gravel Pit on.  Dennis hung tough and really pushed the effort levels up the last 2k which was awesome.



Analysis

If I had to write this analysis after 15km it would be pretty dismal.  Coming towards the latter part of a season where I have made a substantial jump to the best results I've had since starting to ski again, bleeding time from 2k into a race and not due to skis but due to the skier is pretty disheartening.

But by the time I finished I'm reasonably pleased with the race for what it was.  Was my finish as good as I had hoped?  No.  Was I as close to my benchmark skiers as I had hoped?  No.  Did I execute a fueling strategy well?  Yes.  Did I eventually get an opportunity to use my growing aerobic capacity?  Yes.

I'm going to attribute the sluggish first 15km to two things.  First is my workout on Wednesday.  I had 20km of HARD skiing.  I rode the rollers for 30 minutes on Thursday night and my legs had the same dead tired feeling.  It's pretty clear I'm not doing that the week of the Birkie.  I'm not cutting out the intensity all together so I come in flat, but I'm not pushing that hard next week.  The second is the lack of a warm-up.  This is going to be harder to address at the Birkie with the pen race.  I think I've got some ideas though.

I'm really happy that my body was able to rebound and I was actually able to press in the latter parts of the race.  I was definitely tiring at the end, but I was not in bonk mode yet.  Between my bottle of Tailwind and the two gus I had I was staying on top of nutrition better than I think I have ever in a ski race.  This will be important to prevent the bonks I've suffered my first three Birkies.

So if we move away from the subjective results towards more objective measures, things look so so.  As mentioned, I really would have preferred to be a lot closer to Tommy and Jay as my benchmarks.  Tommy had a great race finishing 11th.  It's hard to mess with that.  Last weekend I was less than two minutes behind Jay in a 26k race but here I was 4:45 in about 40k.  Pulling up Strava's time gap feature in the Flyby lab, I was expecting to see most of my time lost to Jay in the first 15k and then hopefully less bleeding.  It actually looks reasonably steady throughout.  Jay said he also felt poor through about OO before taking off.

Jay in fuchsia, Trent Ping in blue.
Pulling up the spreadsheet things are also not great, but not terrible either.  If you somehow missed it through all of my race reporting, getting a spot in the elite wave next year is the goal.  That is the top 200 male.

Predictions so far this year are putting me on the bubble.  I've had some good races, but I don't think I've had a break out race yet.  The next two weeks are about peaking here and I hope I nail it.  Yesterday was alright once I pulled it together.  Just off of elite wave predictions but I can live with that.

Put no stock in the ECTS2016-1.  That was Wednesday's 5k at Elm Creek.  Too few people and extrapolating 5k to 50k is just silly.  PreBirkie says on the bubble on a less than optimal day.
A decent set of folks to correlate from.  A little scatter in the mix but with a good number of common skiers the fit is decent.
Something I've been playing with a little on the side is dealing with these outliers in the predictions.  Some people just have off days, or terrible skis, or maybe they are just getting better like me.  These can throw off the correlation algorithm giving those people the same weight.  Short of interviewing each person I'm trying to find statistical means of excluding them.  I'm no statistician so I'm probably butchering things here, but if I throw out results that are outside of a certain distance from a linear correlation things tighten up a little bit.

The outliers are highlighted here.  I'm one of them.  Using the refined correlation my correlated time would be 2:50:50... 200th place exactly.
So the overall conclusion here is that I'm on the bubble.  I'm definitely in the best shape post high school.  It is going to take a good day at the Birkie for me to qualify.  That means I need to do everything I can to control what I can between now and then to maximize my chances.

What's Next

As I just said, I need to monitor fatigue closely here.  At two weeks out I can't make huge improvements in my fitness, but I could dig myself a hole.  I can also go too light and come in flat.  I think I have a reasonably good feel for what it is going to take for me so I'm optimistic.

I'll be hitting something mid week for intensity and then I'm keeping an eye on the trail reports for the Vasaloppet.  If things are good I'm planning on skiing the 35km skate.  It will be my first Vasaloppet so I'm excited about that.


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